It will soon be the most wonderful time of the year…to watch the best available teenage hockey players in the world play for their country.
The World Junior Championship starts the day after Christmas at two sites in the Czech Republic. The final selection camps lists have been announced and countries will be setting their rosters between now and Dec. 26, when the tournament opens with four games, including the U.S. vs Canada in Ostrava.
Four Devils prospects are in the mix: defensemen Ty Smith (Canada) and Daniil Misyul (Russia), forward Nikola Pasic (Sweden) and goaltender Akira Schmid (Switzerland).
Another interesting storyline: as many as eight of the top 10 picks at the 2020 NHL Draft could be in action, headlined by Canadian forwards Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield, who are the consensus No. 1 and No. 2.
Unless he's injured, Devils prospect Ty Smith will suit up for Canada and is expected to be part of the Canadian leadership group. Smith, 19, and in his final year of junior hockey, was part of Canada's team last year in Vancouver that lost in overtime to Finland in the quarterfinals. Finland later beat Jack Hughes and the U.S., to win gold when Kaapo Kakko scored in the championship game's waning moments.
USA Hockey has named an older team that includes many of Hughes's teammates from its development program that produced eight first-round picks at the 2019 NHL Draft.
Though none are on the U.S. squad, the other three Devils prospects offer compelling stories.
Misyul was taken 70th by the Devils in Vancouver. He has shown well playing against men for Lokomotiv in the KHL this season and tournament play for the Russia U-20 squad in the lead-up to being named to the final selection camp. Ottawa 67's defenseman Nikita Okhotyuk, who the Devils took nine picks earlier last June, had the inside track to join Misyul but has suffered two injuries since the season started and was left off the Russian's final selection camp list.
Like Smith for Canada, Misyul is expected to the final cut for Russia and be part of a defense corps playing in front of goaltender Yaroslav Askarov.
"The best goaltending prospect I've seen since Roberto Luongo," said Red Line Report chief scout Kyle Woodlief. "If Russia has just a competent team in front of him, Askarov could win them gold on his own."
Indeed, Askarov stymied Canada at this summer's Hlinka Gretzky Cup to win gold over a team that included Byfield (a late-2001 birthday, Lafreniere had outgrown the age group). That came a few months after he did the same in the semifinals to Hughes and Co. at last spring's World U-18 in Sweden, though Russia later lost the gold medal game to the hosts.
Nikola Pasic, the last player taken (7th round), 189th overall) by the Devils in Vancouver in June, has made the cut for the Swedes after a blistering start to the season with BIK in the Swedish second division. Pasic, a slick pivot who also plays the wing, is expected to be a secondary scoring threat behind the Swedes power pairing of Lukas Raymond and Alexander Holtz, who are both rated to go in the first handful of picks in the June Draft.
Sweden has an incredible 48-game preliminary round winning streak at the World Junior, including an overtime win last year over the U.S., but Tre Kronor has won gold just once during that span.
Swiss goaltender Akira Schmid, the Devils fifth-round (136th overall) pick in 2018, has been hurt for much of the season with the USHL's Omaha Lancers. Schmid was part of a Swiss team that played the top countries tough last year in Vancouver. If he regains his health, he could be his country's go-to netminder in his last year of eligibility.
The World Junior is typically a 19-year-olds tournament. But the presence of the 2002-born Byfield and a collection of late-birthday 2001s means that most of the top-10 for this summer's Draft will be in action. Lafreniere, who is nursing a minor ankle injury, and Byfield are locks to make Team Canada and could be joined by Cole Perfetti, who right now could go inside the top-five. That Canadian trio combined with both Swedes and Askarov could very well make up picks one through six in June's Draft.
A seventh, forward Tim Stutzle, will play for Germany, who are part of an Ostrava-based group that includes the U.S., Canada, Russia and the host Czechs. Right now, Stutzle is rated somewhere between seventh and 10th on most scouts' pecking order.
Sweden, Finland, with their top own top-10 Draft prospect Anton Lundell, Slovakia, Switzerland and Kazakhstan are in the other group that is based in Trinec.
The NHL Network will broadcast 20 World Junior games, including all U.S., Canada and medal round contests.